space race

10 cool advancements in clean energy

The Space Race showed nations can accomplish great things when everyone is committed to a common goal. Increasingly, people are suggesting that same we-can-do-anything attitude be applied to clean energy. In many ways, it's occurring.

Here are 10 things that grabbed my attention in recent days:

1/Solar windows: Much is being written about solar shingles and even solar clothing, but researchers are also studying if windows - think skyscrapers - could double as energy generators. Challenges abound, as this post in environment 360 points out because they have to be clear, but a Maryland company claims to have a way to spray on a see-through solar coating. Researchers and students at UC Merced also are working on something similar here;

2/The smart minds up the road from us at UC Merced designed an innovative low-cost, non-tracking solar thermal collector system that is able to operate with a solar thermal efficiency of 50% at extreme temperatures. Previously, only more complex tracking solar thermal collector systems could achieve this temperature. The system has practical applications in solar heating, cooling, desalination, oil extraction, electricity generation, and food processing, says Ron Durbin, executive director of University of California Advanced Solar Technologies Institute. Here's an ABC 30 story on it;

3/ Speaking of universities and solar cells, the equally smart minds at USC are developing nanocells that could fit on plastic. Think of the possibilities! More here;

4/ Isn't nature great! The humpback whale is influencing windmill blade design. Click here.

5/ Iceland wants to lay an undersea cable to export geothermal to Europe;

6/ A New York company uses on-site wind turbines to meet 60 percent of the power needs of a mammoth manufacturing plant. Gigaom has it - and more here;

7/ Sidewalks that use kinetic energy from footsteps to generate power for nearby appliances. Crazy, but read about it here. Similarly, these trains in Philly can store kinetic energy from braking for further use.

8/  Superman may not be able to change in these booths, but folks will be able to power up their electric vehicle and monitor pollution. Oh, and they can also make a call;

9/ Making good clean power out of bad bad land. Our blog;

10/  The U.S. and U.K. joining forces to develop floating wind power. More here.

These are just a few things that I noted in recent days, but certainly isn't complete. These solar powered bins that text when they're full are pretty cool too. Maybe it's true when people say clean energy is the next industrial revolution.

Video by UC Merced
Photo of people walking by Graham Kingsley


Clean energy boom and bust: What can be done?

New research concludes clean energy is at a "crossroad" in the United States with federal support set to plunge, and recommends a shift from traditional subsidies to greater support of research and development.

The annual average of $4.7 billion spent on clean energy research since 2009 is roughly a half to a third the funding levels recommended by numerous business leaders, researchers, and national science advisers - and far lower than annual investments in space research and exploration ($19 billion), health research ($34 billion), and defense-related research ($81 billion).

So say authors of "Beyond Boom and Bust," a study by The Breakthrough and World Resources institutes, and Brookings Institution. (Here's a link to a Washington Post story)

With the projected cut in investment (although this blog suggests an increase in aspects of solar manufacturing) comes a required shift in philosophy, the authors state. This change from "policy-induced cycle of boom and bust" is essential to producing cost-competitive clean energy that is necessary for economic security, growth, technological exports and better health, the analysts state.

The report begs the question, Why doesn't the United States apply a Space Race attitude toward clean energy. My colleague, Mike Nemeth, elaborates on that thought in this blog:

ARRA stimulus

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 helped fuel growth of clean energy, but many of those programs and coinciding tax credits are expiring, and annual clean-tech spending, according to "Beyond Boom and Bust", is set to decline some $11 billion, or 75 percent, by 2014.

About one third of all federal spending since 2009 has been one-time ARRA money, the analysts concluded. The expectant dip comes despite declining prices of solar, wind and other forms of clean energy - and the addition of more than 70,000 related jobs during the height of the recession.

Wind energy is competitive in many places, but the number of those places is sharply reduced when unsubsidized rates are calculated, "making wind energy competitive with gas fired generation only in the best of wind regimes with ready access to existing transmission capacity," the report states.

Meanwhile, solar rates have dropped dramatically, and rooftop systems in Hawaii, California and other sun-kissed states with relatively high electricity rates are nearly competitive with more traditional forms of energy. Despite that, disappearing subsidies are hampering solar markets.

The end of this policy era provides an opportunity to overhaul or reform many of the 92 federal clean-tech programs, the authors contend, with "smart reforms that not only avoid a potential 'clean tech crash' but also accelerate technological progress and more effectively utilize taxpayer resources. Well-designed policies that successfully drive innovation and industry maturation could provide US clean energy sectors a more stable framework within which to advance towards both subsidy independence and long-term international competitiveness."

Shrinking subsidies is expected to lead to a consolidation of the solar industry, according to this report from Bloomberg, which cites a study by Jeffries Group Inc.

'Beyond Boom and Bust: says perpetual subsidies are not sustainable, and help cause the "boom and bust" cycle of clean energy. They also don't address the key issues: the higher cost of emerging clean technology relative to fossil fuels.

Costs are coming down, but political uncertainty will continue to drag down clean energy until subsidies are no longer needed. To achieve that, the authors recommend:

1/ Use subsidies and incentives to reward technology advances and cost declines until they are no longer needed;
2/ Increase investment in R&D to match other innovation priorities; for example, creating a test bed program that uses federal land;
3/ Harness advanced manufacturing; regional industry clusters; and invest in energy science, math, technology and engineering education.

what now?

Absent legislative action to extend subsidies, America's clean tech policy system will be largely dismantled by 2015, a victim of scheduled elimination of programs.

Those remaining would include the solar industry's 30 percent investment tax credit, which falls to 10% in 2016, and the "nation's underfunded and politically vulnerable energy RD&D programs and a handful of tax credits and grant programs for energy efficiency and conservation," the authors state.

In conclusion, they say:

"The time has come then to craft a new energy policy framework specifically designed to accelerate technology improvements and cost reductions in clean tech sectors, ensure scarce public resources are used wisely to drive technologies towards subsidy independence as soon as possible, and continue the growth and maturation of America’s clean tech industries."

Making use of wasted space with solar and clean energy

Sometimes, what seems to be wasted space isn't.

Take road medians, rights-of-ways, military bases and airports for example. More studies are showing those regions, which are often off limits or seemingly unusable, could be sites for placing solar arrays, wind turbines or crops for biofuel.

This NPR story talks about the huge potential for solar arrays on the vast expanses of military bases. This suggests lining roadways with solar panels, and this USDA report, released in January, says locating alternative power at airports could be an ideal compromise to habitat and land conflicts that plague renewable energy projects.

From the report: "with careful planning, locating alternative energy projects at airports could help mitigate many of the challenges currently facing policy makers, developers, and conservationists. "

It makes sense. Wildlife isn't wanted at airports, and development of property in the flight path is discouraged. Officials at my hometown airport in Fresno, Calif., were way ahead of the game when they had solar panels installed in 2008.

The panels, placed on land near runways that was previous unusable, are shaving millions off the power bill. The USDA report showcases the Fresno installation and notes it supplies about 60% of the airport's power. Any surplus energy is resold.

Read more here. Meadows Field in Bakersfield and Denver International Airport also have solar arrays.

The USDA study says airports are "one of the few land holdings where reductions
in wildlife abundance and habitat quality are necessary and socially acceptable, and where regulations discourage traditional (crop) production." (Did you know economic losses from wildlife/aircraft collisions are estimated at $600 million annually in the United States?)

Authors of the USDA report, while citing the solar airport examples, note they are not aware of any biofuel production at airports. That could be because officials are afraid the crops would attract wildlife. However, several airports already lease land to farmers who grow such crops as corn. And opportunity exists, at least in terms of land size. The study found that only 10% of the 50 U.S. states had median farm sizes larger airport grasslands.

The authors also note that turf near runways sometimes attract geese and other birds. The report suggests that converting that land to switchgrass or other types of cellulosic feedstock could be an option. "Field research likely could identify productive biofuel crops that, from a wildlife perspective, are compatible with safe airport operations," the authors state, citing other studies.

For more, here is a CleanTechnica post that serves as a good overview.

We're starting to see much more in this area. Solar, for example, is showing up on farms, on roadway pilot projects, on parking garages, city wastewater treatment plants, and on county jails and state prisons. The military is going full speed ahead on renewables, while corporate America, professional sports (hello, baseball season) and others are moving ahead on sustainability programs.

Watch for solar and other types of renewable energy to show up in even more places. Wouldn't it be great if this nation took a space race approach, as my colleague put it so well in this blog, to clean energy and energy efficiency?

Fresno airport solar savings graphic provide by City of Fresno

Waving Hello To The Power of California's Coast

There's the Big Picture, and then there is the REALLY BIG picture. The Big Picture is California exceeding Gov. Brown's 33 percent renewables mandate. The REALLY BIG picture is California reaching 100 percent.

We get lots of sun (my late relatives from the freezing East practically weeped when they turned on their TVs and saw the Rose Parade under sunny skies). Wind turbines dot mountain passes in Alameda, Kern and Riverside counties. Geothermal bubbles up in Lake and Imperial counties. And there is the Coast. Wave power, baby!

Dozens of solar projects proposed for Central and Southern California will likely push the state beyond the 33 percent mandate. But why stop there? As my colleague Mike Nemeth noted in this great post, why not apply a Space Race mentality to energy, especially in this state, which is already a leader in renewables? Nemeth is especially fascinated by the prospect of wave power, as he notes in this blog.

As far fetched as it seems, wave power gets a boost in a new report (here's a link) that cites the astounding opportunities presented by the rolling waves off the coast of Central California, where I grew up. Wave power alone, if fully utilized, could supply energy needs of one-third of the nation. Read more here and here.

The Electric Power Research Institute report is pretty technical. It is full of fancy graphs and mind-numbing data, but suggests that California's waves are great for creating energy. Maybe this device, which works like a bicycle pump, could be an assist.

Population growth, the effects of climate change and dwindling supply of fossil fuel and the increased cost of extracting it, will only increase the demand for energy. Wave power could go a long way toward satisfying the demand. Over in Europe, officials have announced plans for a "marine energy park" off the coast of England, but who knows if it will come to fruition.

Closer to home, the U.S. Department of Energy is testing designs off the coast of Washington, Oregon and Maine, and tidal currents in the East River of New York are the subject of this research. But this proposal in Southern California isn't likely to get under way anytime soon.

President Obama is expected to call for action on clean energy in his State of the Union speech. Wave power is ambitious, but so was the Space Race. Harnessing the power of the ocean would be expensive and a technological challenge, but is it any tougher than going to the moon?

Photo by Roger Kirby

U.S. should apply space race mentality to clean energy

When the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gregarin into space on April 12, 1961, the U.S. government and the public felt sucker-punched.

President John F. Kennedy, however, punched back, sinking tremendous resources into the budding space program and taking the Soviets' accomplishment as a challenge. Kennedy upped the ante, vowing to send a man to the moon.

While he didn't live to see Neil Armstrong take that first giant step, Kennedy launched what is considered one of the most aggressive drives to overcome huge technological hurdles in the nation's history. The United States sought to prove convincingly that American know-how can get the job done, whatever it is.

Give clean energy a shot

Give a similar push to clean energy, and the ramifications would prove spectacular. Imagine cheap solar five times more efficient than existing technology or algae fuel easily harvested and refined from simple CO2-fueled stagnant ponds. Perhaps tidal energy devices could harvest the 2,640 terawatts available on U.S. coasts.

Already the country's national laboratories have come up with amazing results in energy efficiency, biofuels and other renewables. But far more could be done on a regulatory level to encourage research, development and implementation of domestic energy self-reliance. Incentives could be provided through state and local government to implement existing technology, making even the average residential home a net-zero energy user.

After all, energy has become a security issue, and cost on that regard can no longer simply be measured in price per gallon. Yet, fossil fuels and their corporate cheerleaders have powerful lobbies and strong ties to the existing ways of doing business and will likely fight to maintain their part of the status quo. So let them have it. Offer a work-around.

Give oil its due

Sustainability is a big word that can encompass diversified fuel sources. Give oil its due. Petroleum made this country a world leader and rich beyond measure. And coal fuels many regional economies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made history with its recent ruling to curb emissions of coal-fired electricity plants, making even the sub-bituminous variety vastly less irritating to the environment.

Surging renewables could decrease upward pressure on oil prices. The full effect on energy markets is something analysts would have to ponder. But they may stabilize gas prices, let's say at $2.50 per gallon, giving old-world gearheads like me continued access to fuel for our internal combustion engines and leaving the electric hotrods to the younger set.

Another positive development could be declining importance of the Middle East. How about this headline? "Iran abandons nuclear program, cites cash crunch." Healthy competition from alternative energy sources is unlikely to put many in the oil patch out of business, but it would certainly shift the balance of power.

International competition

The funny thing is that other counties appear to be seizing the green opportunity. Germany, for instance, has sidelined its nuclear program and embraced clean energy. No politician there says it's easy, but the payoff could be amazing. Norway's also making a push, and China's not messing around either. Of course, the sleeping dragon of the East is going at every sector like it wants to dominate them all.

The key, at least in this country, is keeping government involvement to a minimum. Most in the clean energy sector would prefer to compete on their own terms, without subsidy. And that means innovation.

To a growing extent, that is already happening. In 2011, international spending in clean energy hit $260 billion, up 5 percent from the previous year and about five times what was spent in 2004, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables already play a role

Solar has reached parity or near parity with fossil fuels, and wind is on the cusp. However, both are intermittent: wind dependent on the whims of Mother Nature and solar on the rotation of the Earth. Only geothermal could be argued a constant source, and its capacity to shoulder the energy burden is limited.

In all cases, and this includes biofuels, fuel cells and hydrogen, advances in production that simplify and reduce costs prove invaluable to the green energy movement. That's why we need some of the best minds focused on solutions. The nation's universities are primed for the challenge. Many already have taken up the charge. Their fledgling programs just need minimal funding to turn out the next big thing.

Bring on energy efficiency

This can't be done without efficiency. As Trevor Winnie, senior research analyst for consultant Clean Edge, so succinctly points out "the U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020 by investing $520 billion" in energy efficiency and cut national energy use by more than a fifth by 2020 or 60 percent by 2050. Winnie cites multiple studies.

"Energy efficiency continues to be the cheapest way to get electricity," he says.

Pair the pursuit of energy efficiency with renewables and a smart grid attuned to a new generation of power sources, and not only would the nation have clean (and hopefully cheap) energy but it would have all the building blocks to fuel its rise to the top of the economic heap once again.

Falter and get dusted

We will have to get moving. In the initial space race, the Russians sent the first man into space, spurring American political leaders to respond. The USSR conquered a previously unimaginable frontier and winning the admiration and acclaim of the world community. Of course, the Nikita Khrushchev-led nation was an arch enemy and Cold War nemesis.

U.S. leaders then feared that control of space could lead to greater geopolitical control. But I tend to believe honor may have had more to do with the space race. The thought of the United States ceding something as monumental as manned flight beyond earth's atmosphere inspired then Kennedy to funnel resources, manpower and the hopes and dreams of the American people behind the Apollo project and getting man to the moon.

Consensus is needed

Kennedy didn't do it alone. His predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, lit the space-race fuse with the signing of the signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, and support came flooding in from both sides of the aisle.

"We choose to go to the moon ... not because they are easy, but because they are hard ... because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win," Kennedy said in a speech to Rice University in Houston.

Kennedy said the United States was not built by those who rested and those who waited. He said the nation rode the first waves of the industrial revolution and modern invention. "This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash," he said, in a speech that sounds as relevent today as it did June 10, 1963.

Clean energy should be given treatment similar to that received by the space race. The stakes are high, perhaps higher. The nation's security is compromised by its dependence on foreign oil and national debt. Its skies are darkened by smog. Its children suffer from toxins in the air and environment. Our way of life is threatened.

No thanks Dr. Strangelove

Taking action is a heck of a lot better than the depressing scenario painted by TomDispatch blogger and author Michael T. Klare, who writes that pursuing no alternative course will result in potential serious conflict over the scant remaining resources. He identifies several hot spots "where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond."

Klare warns to watch the Strait of Hormuz, the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin and the Arctic.

Wouldn't it be better to look the enemy square in the eye and yell like Slim Pickens' Major Kong?